Cambodia statue highlights murder mystery

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Cambodia's murder mystery: Who killed Vichea?
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Cambodia's murder mystery: Who killed Vichea?

A new statue in the centre of Cambodia's capital stands as a reminder of one of the country's most politically charged killings.

Unveiled last week across the street from where he was gunned down nine years ago, the stone sculpture of slain union leader Chea Vichea marks what many believe is a murder that has not been solved.

The killing of Chea has all the elements of a Hollywood thriller: A murdered political figure, assassins on a motorcycle, death threats, allegations of police corruption, witnesses claiming intimidation, and two men serving 20-year prison sentences for a crime few believe they committed.

Chea, whose death sparked an immediate outcry from rights groups and foreign diplomats, was killed on January 22, 2004, while he was reading The Cambodia Daily newspaper outside a news stand. Two men on a motorcycle drove up, one of whom dismounted and fatally shot the politician three times before driving off again.

Nearly 10 years later, Chea's death and the subsequent investigation are still condemned by rights groups as examples of impunity and corruption within the country's courts.

Through the 1970s Chea survived the regime of the Khmer Rouge along with his brother, going on to help found what became Cambodia's main opposition party.

His reputation grew as a charismatic leader who travelled around the country, working tirelessly to convince garment workers to join the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTU).

In 1997, while taking part in a demonstration, he was injured along with more than 100 others during a grenade attack that left 16 protesters dead in Phnom Penh.

And despite receiving threats against his life - one of which was sent by text message six months before he was killed - he continued the fight for workers' rights until the day he died.

Chea's funeral in Phnom Penh overwhelmed the city streets with tens of thousands of mourners.

Swift justice was demanded and police responded by parading two men - Born Samnang, 32, and Sok Sam Oeun, 45 - in front of the press seven days after the killing.

Then-deputy Phnom Penh police chief Heng Pov, who is currently serving lengthy prison sentences for a variety of serious crimes, announced that they had caught the killers.

Justice under scrutiny

But the apparent swift justice was soon placed under scrutiny.

Discrepancies in the investigation, along with a lack of evidence in what is widely considered a political killing, led to condemnation by rights groups.

At Born and Sok's first trial in March 2004, Investigating Judge Hing Thirith threw the case out, citing a lack of evidence.

However, the Appeals Court overruled his decision to release the pair and ordered a retrial. Hing was removed from his post at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court five days later and transferred to a remote part of the country.

On August 1, 2005, after being kept in pre-trial detention for nearly 18 months, Born and Sok were brought to court again, but they were not allowed to face their accusers. Born, who had signed a confession after his arrest, told the court he had been abused and coerced by police into doing so.

"Prosecution witnesses (with the exception of several police officers who testified primarily to deny Born Samnang's testimony of police mistreatment and bribery) did not appear in court," reported Licadho, a local rights NGO which monitored the proceedings.

"None of the prosecution witnesses whose statements were read to the court placed either defendants at the scene of the crime, or provided any first-hand information of their involvement in the murder."

Despite this, the court ruled at the end of the one-day trial that Born and Sok were guilty of murder.

"Police officers threatened and detained those providing alibis for the two suspects, and intimidated other witnesses," Amnesty International said in a statement released on Wednesday.

"Born Samnang said that police beat and coerced him into making a confession - the principal evidence on which the pair were then convicted."

Evidence of a framing?

Even Heng Pov, the former deputy police chief, claimed in an August 2006 interview with French news magazine L'Express, that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun had been framed.

"It did not take me long to understand that the two suspects, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, had nothing to do with the murder," L'Express reported him as saying, according to a translation of the interview.

Officials in Cambodia brushed aside the accusations made by the now-disgraced former official, saying that he was obviously not to be trusted.

And then there was the testimony of Va Sothy, the key witness and the owner of the newsstand where Chea Vichea was shot dead. 

In 2006, she sent a notorised statement to the court saying that the two men were innocent.

"I understood that the fake murderers had been created, because I could clearly remember the faces of the murderers and they were not the same as the pictures publicised," she wrote, according to a copy of the testimony on Licadho's website.

She did not testify in person because she had fled the country, saying that being the sole witness to what could be considered the most politically charged murder of the decade had put her in danger.

Her statement likewise accuses Pov of warning her against coming forward after a day after Born and Sok were arrested.

But the Appeals Court rejected Va's testimony, saying she needed to testify in person.

Hope for the pair was restored temporarily in December 2008, when the Supreme Court released Born and Sok on bail and ordered the Appeals Court to reinvestigate the case.

However, four years later, in December 2012, the Appeals Court upheld the original verdict. The pair were sent back to prison, where they remain today.

Highlighting the case

One of the lawyers involved in the case, Sok Sam Oeun, who is not related to the convicted man, said from Phnom Penh that the court's decision reflected "a problem with the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia".

Sok, the executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, which has supplied the defence attorneys for the convicted men, said that the court may have felt that it had no choice but to put the pair back in jail.

If they were innocent, he said, then the police and the courts would have a lot to answer for.

"This case can make the government lose face," he said. "If the judge released them, it makes the police lose face."

Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International's researcher on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, said that his organisation would continue to highlight the case in the hope that international donors would take it into consideration when handing out money for the country.

"The donors seem to have a very short memory in Cambodia," he said from London.

"The justice system, despite on the surface looking a bit better ... 20 years on, in many respects, it is not any better."

The Cambodian government, as it has since the beginning, denied that anything is awry.

"Right now everyone wants to put the blame on politics," said Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, refuting claims of government intervention in the case.

"We cannot say who is wrong or right, but we respect the court's decision."

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